Boxing: Winning and losing the Varsity match

Cambridge University Amateur Boxing Club coach, Vincent O'Shea

Frank Bruno said, “Boxing is the toughest and loneliest sport in the world”, and I have a tendency to agree with him. In a career defined by highs and lows, perhaps my darkest moments as Cambridge boxing coach came in the wake of the 2008 Varsity Match.

Charlie Troman for CAM

Pummelled 7-2 by Oxford, this result prompted a number of questions. What could we have done differently? How could we turn things around, bring some pride back to the squad, and rebuild for the future? As a coach you feel a responsibility to your team, not only to train and to prepare them, but also to fulfil the trust they place in you – I had to ask, what had gone wrong?

Cambridge is a frustrating place to be a boxing coach. Faced with the brightest and the best on one hand, struggling with a lack of facilities, funding and support on the other, you’re forced to enter selection with a preconceived idea of what you want. Though shortsighted, it’s a necessary approach: with six months to prepare for the Varsity Match there isn’t time for much long-term thinking. The longevity and depth of the club is always somewhere in the back of your mind, but balanced against the necessity for Varsity victory in the short term.

CUABC is consequently less like a club and more like an ongoing selection process, enabling the Varsity Match to take place, and the club to survive. This puts a constant pressure on members to over-perform; they put everything into training, desperate not to be cut and willing to do almost anything for a Varsity vest. The results are mixed, the odd cheap shot is thrown in the gym to gain ground, and there’s a fiercely competitive atmosphere. From the outset it’s clear who your internal opposition is, the weight categories are well-defined, and you train next to your opposite number for months on end in competition for that elusive Varsity spot.

Then there are the fixtures. People assume Cambridge is full of toffs. Yes, we have our share of privileged kids in the club, but they come from all backgrounds and they respect each other because of what they’re putting themselves through. Cambridge often isn’t taken seriously as a boxing club, but most of the time we leave a venue with more respect than we started with and we’re invited back.

Cambridge's Borna Guevel (red) takes on Oxford's Tommy Williams (blue) in the 2012 Varsity Match Middleweight category

So what are the benefits for those who box with us? Life skills: self-awareness, confidence, fitness, commitment and friendships. Boxing’s quite a humbling sport, especially for a single night of potential glory. The boys aren’t in the limelight when they box in a working men’s club, they’re taking part in a working man’s sport in low-cost venues to non-existent audiences, purely for the love of the sport – and, of course, for a Varsity place.

As Hemingway wrote, “My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything.” Though this is not an attitude we’d encourage, he epitomised the scholar-athlete, a precociously intelligent, driven, ambitious youth with a passion to succeed and an aptitude for physical challenge, his writing fuelling his boxing, and his boxing his writing.

There are plenty of Cambridge boxers with this attitude, and the perceived boxing stereotype of a loutish, aggressive, ignorant thug is miles from the lads I’ve dealt with. They have a visible determination, a deep sense of sacrifice; they are occasionally overanalytical but bring their intelligence to the ring. They are so enquiring I need to be able to justify every aspect of my coaching, and, crucially, their intelligence makes them safer boxers: there are clever ways not to be hit and they pick them up quicker than average. In this way, CUABC shows how boxing is the great leveller – PhD student or man on the street, competitors use the same core skills in the ring.

Our 9-0 victory over Oxford at the 102nd Varsity Match in March 2009 laid to bed last year’s demons, both for me and for the club. Personally, I felt like I’d justified my presence, I’d had a lot of doubters and would never confess to being the best coach, but we won through as a team on the night and that was enough.

Despite our victory, I don’t think there’ll be boxing at Cambridge in a couple of years’ time. The university will have to get behind it to sustain its level of progress, and also to satisfy the minimum safety and equipment requirements as enforced by the sport’s governing body. The standard of boxers year on year improves but sooner or later they’ll give up because they’re tired of being so much better than the available facilities.

As for me, this is my final season as coach. I’ll miss the guys, I’ll miss the club, I’ll miss witnessing the transformation of the people – but most of all I’ll miss walking them to the ring at the Varsity Match, sitting back and hoping we’ve done enough.

For more information about the Cambridge University Amateur Boxing Club, visit

This first appeared in the 57th edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)